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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Food Find Reviews: Cupcakes & Bagels

John C. - Father of the owner of Ms. Goody Cupcake a new bakery on Passyunk Avenue.
Over the past month I've been indulging my sweet tooth at nearly every opportunity.  Candy, cupcakes, ice creams, even sweet honey bathed bagels.  Some of these indulgences have been worth the caloric splurge, other bites haven't been worth the extra cycling miles it will take for me to shed the carb intake.  Since I've been collecting stories and photos of each food find, I thought I'd post a mini-review of a few of my recent finds.
The Elvis Cupcake - banana with chocolate covered bacon
First up are the cupcakes from Ms. Goody Cupcake, a new store located on Passyunk Avenue at Mifflin Street in South Philadelphia.  We first discovered the shop in late July, during the 3rd Annual East Passyunk Avenue Car Show.  I spotted John C. in his bright pink "Real Men Eat Cupcakes" tee shirt and was intrigued.  We chatted for a few moments, exchanging pleasantries and quips and when I asked if I could take his photo for my blog/photo projects, we both discovered our mutual connection to food and photography.

The Red Velvet Love Philly Cupcake
Next thing I knew, John was escorting Liz, Nate and I into his daughter's cupcake store where we were offered samples, a back stage tour of the shop and an ample amount of photo opportunities.  It was like a press junket welcoming to a film or tv premier with the added benefit of sweets in exchange for the "interview"   Ms. Goody Cupcake was doing a soft opening during the car show, promoting the upcoming opening of the new store. They were giving out mini cupcake samples of the goodies.  The anticipated opening was scheduled for the beginning of August.

As the dog days rolled on and the store hadn't yet opened, I began to get worried - I really liked what I tasted and saw in the bakery.  Cupcakes with interesting names and themes, creative designs and unique flavors.  I wanted to try the full-size cupcakes and I wanted to know more about the crazy South Philly family that was running the business.  The whole scene of the shop reminded me of Philadelphia's version of Cake Boss and Staten Island Cakes but with better treats and reasonable prices.

The store opened a few weeks after the anticipated date.  Ironically, it was during Tuesday's earthquake that we got to test out the full-size cupcakes.  Liz, out on a scouting mission for all of us, headed up to "The Avenue" with Nate and our friend, Steven.  They purchased a half-dozen cupcakes, 6 for $13.  Of the 6 purchased, 2 whole ones and 2 halves made it home for me to sample and report.  The full-sized cupcakes were as good as the mini ones we tasted in July.  Lime Margarita; Chocolate-Take-A-Break (a chocolate cupcake with butter cream frosting topped with a mini donut); Chocolate Cookie Dough with Chocolate Fudge Butter cream Frosting; Red Velvet "Love" Philly cupcakes.  All were moist, delicious, fresh and full of real butter and most importantly, good flavor.  Not a lick of faux ingredients or too much (if any) shortening.  Run,  ride but don't walk to this new cup cake shop located at 1838 East Passyunk Avenue.

On the less sweet side of the carbohydrate aisle is Spread Bagelry, located on 20th Street between Locust and Spruce Streets in Center City Philadelphia.  Spread Bagelry is a Montreal Style Wood Oven Bagel Shop that specializes in hand made, small batch artisan baked bagels.  They are rustic looking and divine tasting.  Bathed in honey water bath before they are baked in a real wood burning brick oven, these bagels are not your bubbie's Lenders.  At 2 Bucks a pop - they had better be the best darn bagel you ever ate - better than any beloved New York H&H special (may they rest in peace!)



Spread Bagelry had an inauspicious start back in May of this year.  After months of building delays and all the hype about these mind-blowing bagels, the store opened, only to be shuttered for another 3 months due to a fire that occurred on opening day!  My co-workers and I speculated that the store owners ran out of money building the place; we thought they would never reopen.  Perhaps the insurance claims adjuster took too long in getting the check cut for all the damages.  Or maybe the City's licencing guys needed some actual dough slipped their way to help feed their hunger so the store could pass inspection to open.  Whatever the story, the shop is now up and running. The bagels are fantastic.  Not that I'm a fan of spending more than a dollar on a bagel,  it's probably a good thing that they are on the pricier side; I'd be there way too often if they were cheaper.  These are a splurge well worth their weight in biallys, bagels and imported flour.


For my lunch - I had a whitefish spread on a whole wheat everything bagel.  It was HUGE! Cream cheese from an organic dairy farm in Lancaster County.  The best, ripest, sweetest tomato I ever ate - and since I HATE raw tomatoes, that's saying something.  I ate the whole thing.  The onions were good too, they must use Vidalla onions because they were sweet without that sulfuric bite.  The whitefish was a tad too salty but otherwise it was fresh and delicious - and I enjoyed every morsel.  $9 bucks for this satisfying and filling sandwich.  Gotta bike 40 miles to work off those calories!


Last sweet bite - The Cake Artist of Staten Island aka Staten Island Cakes.  On WE TV, a cable station in the upper 100's on my Comcast channels, is a reality show based in Staten Island that follows the life of Vinnie Buzzetta, a 21 year old Staten Island Native.  The show chronicles Vinnie and his business as well as his openly gay life, his crazy Italian-American Family and his trials and tribulations with life in New York's Forgotten Borough (and my favorite island!)

Normally I eschew reality tv programs.  I'm not a fan of cooking reality programs either. They are either so overly exaggerated or fake that I get agita watching people glamorize what is one of the hardest industries in which to toil.  I prefer to watch edgy cooking shows, classic old programs like the Drunk Chef Galloping Gourmet and The French Chef or even those Diners Drive-ins and Dives/Food History programs.  However something about Vinnie and his cute puppy dog eyes and the fact that his being gay is such a non-issue grabbed my attention.  I had to check out his store.  While Staten Island isn't that big, where The Cake Artist is located was way across the island from the village of Great Kills.  We had reason to head over to the other side of Staten Island making the trip to the bakery part of our driving errands.
From Top of the "Clock" -
Peanut Butter & Jelly; Banana; S'mores; Chocolate Raspberry;
Cookies & Cream; Toasted Coconut 
The visit to the store was disappointing.  Vinnie was inside and we got to meet him and chat.  Status about his show, Staten Island Cakes, is on hold; there was an air of uncertainty about the bakery, we weren't even sure the shop was open.  The cupcakes looked good and the cake was mostly moist and tasty.  The prices were a bargain, 2 bucks a pop.  Now, I have to confess, I normally do not like frosting/icing and I'm not a cupcake connoisseur.  They are generally a lot of fluff and no taste.  I can't stand expensive frilly desserts that doesn't satisfy.  These cupcakes almost tip into this realm.  Fancy baubles with no pay-off.  It was...it was the soap the frosting that ruined them.  Almost every cupcake's frosting was entirely devoid of natural butter and was instead made with waxy shortening.  Don't put a birthday candle in them, the whole thing will flare up!  Three of us tasted the cupcakes and we all agreed they were a major disappointment.  The S'mores cupcake was the only one we gave high marks to - as it was over-all good. Great chocolate flavor, fudge icing, a mini marshmallow in the center and a graham cracker bottom.  Ah, Vinnie B.  I hope your show gets picked up for another season or else it's back to baking lessons for you.  And one final piece of advice, Dude, get some buttah in yo' shop!

Monday, August 22, 2011

I really like your peaches wanna shake your tree...& make some Peach Salsa




Peach picking and a hay ride were some of the many things we did on our traveling vacation last week.  For as many times as I've been to Linvilla Orchards out in Delaware County, PA, and for all the farms we visited in the past week, I've never picked my own fruit out of an orchard. It's always been something I wanted to do and said I'd get around to doing, until the season passed and it would become something to do "next year."  Finally, Next Year arrived as did the season for Peaches.  


While were up in Warren County, New Jersey, visiting with our friend Lynnette and her kids, Gracie and Timmy, we had a play date trip to Alstead Farms.  First up on the visit to the farm was a hay ride pulled by a huge tractor while we all piled into a huge wagon loaded with hay bales for seats.  It took us through the fields, past the berries, apples, tomatoes and into the peach orchards.

Once into the orchards we couldn't stop ourselves from picking peaches fast enough.  They were perfectly ripe and ready for eating.

 Gracie and Timmy stopped picking peaches long enough for me to take a photo of them and our bounty.

Nate enjoyed running through the orchards as well  running into the tractor ruts and out onto the farm road.  We had to wrangle him back to his stroller, giving him a time-out and a beverage to rehydrate him from his work-out.  We didn't want to be accused of using child labor in the fields.
We picked a lot of peaches and they were rather expensive but...we had a lot of fun being outside, playing, running and being together.  With all the peaches we had it gave us a lot of produce to make peach salsa and cobbler.   Since the farm also had a store, I could purchase all the ingredients to make a fresh peach salsa. Nearly every ingredient, except for the lime, was grown on the farm and was literally a farm to fork (or in this case, bowl to chip) dish.


Fresh Peach Salsa Ingredients:

  • 4 Plum Tomatoes - cleaned, seeded and cut into small dice
  • 2 or 3 Fresh Ripe Peaches - Cut in half, pit removed and cut into small dice (keep the skins on for color)
  • 1 Small/Medium Onion - small dice
  • 1 Small/Medium Bell Pepper (red or green) - seeded and cut into small dice
  • 1 Small Jalapeno - CAREFULLY remove ribs and seeds and cut into small dice (for hotter salsa, keep the ribs and seeds intact)
  • 2 Garlic Cloves - minced
  • Zest and Juice of 1 Lime - zest finely grated
  • 1 Tablespoon White Wine Vinegar
  • 1/2 Cup or 1 Small Bunch of Fresh Cilantro - cleaned and roughly chopped
  • Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper - to taste


Directions:

  1. Use a large mixing bowl and clean, seed and dice all the vegetables as indicated adding each diced vegetable and fruit to the mixing bowl as you cut them - the tomatoes through the garlic clove.  
  2. Add in finely grated lime zest and juice, the tablespoon of vinegar and cilantro, tossing to combine.  
  3. Season to taste with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper.  Refrigerate for about an hour before serving for best taste and to allow the flavors to meld together.  Salsa will hold for up to 3 days in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator. 


Tips/Notes:

  • This recipe is so easy, fresh and fast and can be made as hot or mild as you like.  It can also be made into a fire roasted version - whereby you grill all the ingredients and then chop them to make the salsa.  It can also be cooked and canned, to be enjoyed for future use in the winter.  For canning tips, see my salsa canning entry from several summers ago here.
  • If you make a large batch of the salsa and you don't want to can it - you can cook the salsa instead of serving it raw/fresh.  Make the salsa according to the directions and then add the finished product to a 3 or 4 quart sauce pot.  Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, keeping the salsa at a low simmer.  Cool the salsa and taste and adjust the seasonings - vinegar, lime juice and salt and pepper as needed.  The cooked salsa will hold for up to 1 week.
  • The salsa can also be turned into a gazpacho.  Puree all but a quarter of the salsa in a food processor or blender, until the mixture is thoroughly pureed but not perfectly smooth.  Add back some of the reserved salsa to the puree and serve cold, immediately.  The gazpacho will hold for up to 2 days.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Chocolate Bicycle Tour of North Central New Jersey


Whenever I go on vacation, I like to a) take my bike if I can and b) scout out the local food finds.  As I mentioned in earlier posts, we're doing a driving vacation this week, driving about 2 hours outside of Philadelphia and into parts of North Western PA, North Central NJ and over to New York to the forgotten Borough - Staten Island (the secret gem of New York!)  So far I've found a lot of great food and candy finds but haven't had too many opportunities to discover much via bicycle.  The weather has been a major prohibiting factor in not being able to get out to cycle.  Actually, we've had only one day without any rain and pure majestic blue skies, every other day since Saturday,  August 13th, have had either torrential down pours or enough rain to wash out any chance of getting out on the bike.

We were in Hackettstown, New Jersey, where our friend, Lynnette, lives - she of the spot of tea and Polish Feast meals.  She introduced me to her friend, Tara, and organized a bike ride for me with Tara.  I met Tara and her riding partner, Paul, on Wednesday at 6:20 am, in the parking lot of Mars, Incorporated.  Paul works for Mars, along with Lynette's husband, Rob.   Tara and Paul have been cycling together for over 8 years; they know each other and the area very well.  Apparently there's a big bicycle community out in the rolling hills of Warren County, and Paul and Tara are two of the group who took me out on a modest, non- rolling easy hill climbing bike ride.  

Tara and Paul were gracious bicycle hosts, taking me on what I'm sure for them was a C-Class ride.  For me it was a wee bit more of a challenge as compared to my morning 24 mile flat ride around the Schuylkill River.  I was a bit nervous riding with new people - I felt like a newbie again and was worried I wouldn't be able to keep up with their pace.  I did okay but it was eye opening for me to be humbled by other cyclists who are used to riding up some very steep hills on a regular morning bike ride.  Plus, I couldn't sprint as quickly or take over the lead at all, because a) I didn't know the area b) I didn't have the legs c)it's just plain rude!  

Our ride was scenic and beautiful with a few climbs. Fog hovered around us on parts of the ride through more wooded areas. There were moments when my sunglasses and bare arms were glazed over with cool dew.  I managed nearly all of the short climbs and only one steep residential area caused me to give out - mostly because I misjudged the grade of the street and I wasn't in an easy low gear.  I almost wiped out and couldn't get my shoes unclipped but in the nick of time I  found my footing so I could walk up the hill the last few steps to the top. 

As we rolled back into the parking lot of Mar's Inc., home of  M&M's, we were greeted by a sweet smell of chocolate and roasted peanuts. It was truly divine. The morning was filled with  golden sunlight, the fog was just beginning to burn off and ahead of us were cloudless azure blue skies. A bike ride like this just doesn't get better.
This 18 miler left me short of breath a few times but it was a glorious ride - one that had I been in a car and seen riders on the rode next to me I would  have been envious.  In short, it was the kind of bike ride I've always dreamed of doing but never had the guts or opportunity to try before!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Spot of Comfort and Tea

We've been doing a driving vacation this past week, visiting with family and friends.  After our first stop in the Lehigh Valley where we visited with Liz's dad, step-mom and sister, we headed out to Hackettstown, New Jersey - which is in the Central and Norther part of the Garden state.  Our travels brought us to a dear friend's house, Lynnette and her fun and lovely family.  Our drive was through scenic and rural towns of the Lehigh and into New Jersey.  Rolling hills, farmland, old quaint towns and many road side stands.  Along the way we passed a lot of old fashioned diners, ice cream shops and other nostalgic eating establishments of a bye-gone era.  We drove about an hour and fifteen minutes further than the Lehigh Valley before we got to Lynnette's house - not too far and we were in the car just long enough for Nate to have taken a short "power" nap.  Upon arriving at Lynnette's, we unloaded and hauled in our mass of traveling gear.  It ain't easy to leave home with a 22 month old boy!  Once we settled in at her house, Lynnette took us into her dining room where she had a set out an afternoon tea for us - complete with scones with clotted cream and jam; tea sandwiches (Fluff & Nutella! PB&J, Cucumber and Cream cheese, and Tuna); iced tea, lemonade, hot tea and lemon cooler cookies.  We  ate, talked and got reacquainted and had a lovely civilized afternoon.  Even Nate enjoyed himself, eating strawberries and several tea sandwiches (I think we discovered a new bread and food group for our picky Nibblet to enjoy!)
Grilled Kielbasa
For the rest of the afternoon, we talked and the kids ran around the yard.  Well, I should say we took turns talking while one of us ran after Nate.  Lynnette's development has an open layout so the yards continuously flow into one another with only trees and driveways separating the houses between streets.  I made up for the lack of biking and extra calories I've been enjoying from my candy, cheese and tea tour thus far.  Nate has a lot of energy and I burned it up with him during our afternoon of play, totally working up an appetite for Lynnette's Polish Feast she had planned for our dinner. 

We were treated to grilled kielbasa and sauerkraut; homemade golumpki (cabbage leaves stuffed with ground meats and rice, cooked in a sweet tomato sauce with kraut and onions); pierogies and onions, and rye bread.  It was a meal memory from my childhood, taking me back to my Bobci's kitchen and to the Polish Home Picnics of my youth.  When you combine happy food memories and delicious food lovingly prepared by someone special you have the recipe for the perfect meal.  Lynnette went all out for us and dinner was phenomenal, better than any Polish style meal I've ever had.   Now I just need the recipes so I can attempt to recreated it and share it further! 

Plans for the rest of our visit in the land of Mars Chocolate, headquarters for North America's M&M manufacturer include an early morning bike ride for me, arranged by Lynnette with her good friend, Tara; a visit to a local farm and peach picking; pizza and a stop at a huge old-fashioned candy store and lunch at Hot Dog Johnny's - a New Jersey Landmark since 1944.  I think I'm going to need a bigger pair of pants!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Great Candy & Food Finds of the Lehigh Valley

 Just a coupla chicks peeping peeping out!

We're on a little road trip vacation this week, stopping first in the Lehigh Valley area to visit Liz's dad, Paul, and step-mother, Paula, and sister, Kate.  I had hoped to bike while we were here but there's been too much rain to get outside beyond running to the car.  Instead we've been doing mostly indoor things, such as going to the Sigal Museum in downtown Easton - an historical museum all about the Lehigh Valley with a strong emphasis on the history of Easton.  It's a well-planned museum, with easy to access exhibits and displays and some interactive, touch screens and sound bytes.  It's a must to see for those interested in the Civil War and early Americana of the area, as there are a lot of uniforms and artifacts from the 1800's.  There is also a whole area devoted to the candy companies founded in the area - such as the First Born Company, the makers of Marshmallow PEEPS!  Crayola is also another great company with head quarters and factories in the area and we made a quick visit there too. 
Whenever I learn about a great old candy store or "Shoppe" I have to find it and check it out for my own personal taste tour.  Josh Early Candies is in the Bethlehem and Allentown areas of the Lehigh Valley.  I've had the candies many times but had not visited the store.  This time we made a special drive over to the shoppe in Bethlehem.  It didn't disappoint.  The store looks as though it was built and decorated in 1963.  It's a huge ranch style building with an enormous show room floor filled with aisles, shelves and tables of chocolates, candied fruit slices, licorices and chocolate covered everything.  I went a little crazy in the store - it was before breakfast/lunch time and I was hungry.  We bought dark chocolate covered toasted coconut marshmallow fluff, dark chocolate non-parelills, cashew clusters, chocolate covered pretzels for some friends and fruit slices for another friend.  Just what I needed, candy to add to my "growing" waistline!  Ah, the food and eating mentality of vacation.  Too bad it's rained so much on this trip as I haven't biked away any of the calories I'm taking in on a daily basis.

On another food and find stop, we visited Klein Farm in Easton, Forks Township. Liz's family has a connection to the Klein family and Liz always tells me the story of how her family would buy milk & eggs from the farm.  City "kid" that I am, I get a big kick out of the story and thinking about buying farm fresh produce and dairy products direct from the source up the road.

The Klein farm has recently become a bit more well-known outside of the area thanks in large part to a recent guest appearance on TLC's "The Cake Boss" reality baking television show. The family had a large scale replica of their special cow interpreted as a cake, well really as a giant life size rice crispy treat. The Cake Boss built the cow treat big enough to hold a small man inside, who dispensed chocolate milk through the "cow's" udders.


At the end of the episode the guests at the party tipped over the fake cow, with the little guy inside.  It was funnier on tv than in my retelling. 
Visiting the farm was a lot of fun for us all.  Nate ran around and visited with the cows, chickens, goats, sheep, turkeys and ducks.  He even climbed aboard the farm's golf-cart that they use to drive out to the buildings and produce fields.  We bought some freshly made and aged cheeses and apple butter and I spoke to one of the farm workers about their produce and the collaborative for which they supply vegetables each week.  I might not have biked here but I finally got in my farm tour this summer, having missed one a few weeks ago in Philadelphia due to the severe heat wave.  The only weather issues we experienced was more rain a lot of thunder and lightening. 

Our next stop is up to Hackettstown, New Jersey, to visit with Liz's college roommate, Lynnette and her family.  She's planning a Polish feast for us and if we're lucky, we'll explore some of the gres at byways and food finds of North-Central NJ.  Lynette's husband works for Mars, makers of M&M's.  I'm sure we'll get to taste some of the new candies, hopefully the new peanut butter Snicker's Bar!  And to help with my weight control, Lynnette's organized  bike ride for me with one of her friends, Tara, and avid cyclists.  I hope I'm up to the task of the hills of Central NJ.  This "city kid" is used to the flat street of Philadelphia.  Stay tuned for more tales and candy stories!

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Bicycle Chef's Food Photography Portfolio!

As a food blogger with an advertising sponsor, FoodBuzz, I get several offers to opt into per month for new products.  I don't always choose to enter my blog into the offers; some things don't interest me and others aren't in keeping true to my blog's varied mission.  There have been items I'd wanted to try but haven't been selected.   There have been things that I have liked allowing me to taste-test breads, cereals, coffee, Asian seasonings, dip mixes and chocolates.  This past month  I was offered a chance to opt into the Kodak Gallery Photo Book Maker online service.  I "won" the opportunity and was given a free, medium hard cover photo book with 20 pages to fill with either one image or several, with or without text.  This is a non-fattening product very much in keeping with my blog mission of Food, Photos and Recipes!

The thought of making a photo book is a daunting task for someone who takes photos every day and has an online photo server host with over 6,000 images from the past 4 years of my photography life.  I decided that the best book for me to make would be to choose only my best food photos that I have on my current home computer.  Making the book into a food photo portfolio  narrowed down my photo cache to less than two years worth of photos on my current computer, whereby the photos were taken with one of two of my digital cameras. My food styling eye has improved immensely over the past year, really since I purchased my Nikon L110 camera and started to photograph food and recipes I've made in natural light whenever I can.  

Working with the Kodak Gallery website was so easy!  I was worried this project was going to take days and hours, the Kodak website and templates made my photo book project come together nearly instantly.  Receiving the final product was almost as quick too.  I finished my upload on Tuesday night and received my book this evening!
Viewing the book in your hands and not as a preview on line is to see your creation come to life.  Even these photos of my photo book do not reveal how high quality the Kodak Gallery Photo Book is in person.   I'll brag on my own self here for a moment more - my food photos, in this book look like they've come from the pages of Sauveur, Martha Stewart LIVING and the best of Gourmet Magazines!



Now I'm hooked!  I want to make more of these photo books with recipes added to make this a true food portfolio.  If I had more time, I know I could have written or uploaded  the accompanying recipes and stories.  Look out for The best of The Bicycle Chef blog in print!  Hmm, the ideas are brewing.  I see a recipe book in the works with copies being given away here in the near future.  







As for you and your future prize, Kodak and FoodBuzz are offering to you a chance to make your own book for 40% off!  Simply click on this link here www.kodakgallery.com/creativity and go to the Kodak Gallery Photo Book Maker website and start your project today.  The offer is good through August 31, 2011.

Love your food, love your photos and leave me some love too!  The Bicycle Chef Love's Comments!  Tell me what you think of this book, and if you make your own, show me or tell me about it!  And don't forget to use the 40% off code and link, you only have until August 31, 2011 to take advantage of Kodak & FoodBuzz's offer.